In early 2017, Cobble Hill’s Natalie Williams was at death’s door.
This July, she became a champion.
Williams, who turns 21 later this month, received a life-saving liver transplant in spring of last year. Just 15 months later, she won three gold medals at the ninth Canadian Transplant Games in Vancouver.
“When you are waiting on [the transplant list], you are dying,” Williams says. “You don’t have long left to live.”
Williams was diagnosed with biliary atresia, a childhood liver disease, when she was just nine weeks old. Her twin sister, Kathryn, was born without the condition, which is not genetic. Natalie had her first operation a few days later. Two decades after that, she finally received a new liver. The Transplant Games entered her life soon after that.
“Shortly after my transplant, my doctor mentioned the games,” says Williams, noting that it gave her something to aim for, something inspiring and motivating.
Now studying at Camosun College to be a nurse, Williams admits that she wasn’t very active prior to her transplant, but she focused on the two sports she had done on a casual basis when she was younger: cycling and swimming.
“I took it to the next level, to where I was actually able to compete,” she says.
At the Transplant Games in early July, Williams won gold in the 18-29 age group in 5km and 20m road biking, and in the 100m breaststroke, her only swimming event.
Williams wasn’t expecting to come home with multiple gold medals.
“It was a shock,” she said. “It was emotional. I wanted to honour my donor and be able to do that for his spirit. It reinstated how much health you have and the ability of your body.”
The Canadian Transplant Games take place every two years at a different location in Canada, with competitors from across the country, as well as entrants from the U.S. and Mexico. Athletes range in age from three to their late 80s, competing in nine different sports. Certain sports include categories for living donors as well as transplant recipients. Some of the athletes Williams encountered included sponsored professionals, and a swimmer who was on track for the Olympics before she got sick.
Williams’s mother, Nickie, admits that she underestimated the calibre of the athletes at the games, noting that many spectators expected to see the “walking wounded,” but were surprised.
“You get there and realize they are serious athletes,” she says.
The competitors and their families have a bond the likes of which can be found at few other sporting events.
“You look at the others and have so much pride in them all,” Nickie says. “They’ve become our family
The games included social events, one of which was particularly meaningful for Natalie as she looked at her fellow athletes around the room.
“We all wouldn’t be here if someone hadn’t made that decision [to donate their organs],” she recalls thinking. “It was overwhelming, for a family to have made that decision when they were losing someone.”
According to the Live Then Give Foundation, 95 per cent of British Columbians say they support organ donation, but only 20 per cent have actually registered their decision. Family members get to make the final decision, so it is vital to discuss the decision with them.
Some people worry about being too old or too young to donate organs. Natalie says to let the doctors make the call on who is eligible.
“I’ve known people who’ve had cancer and gone on to donate,” she says.
Since Natalie participated in the Canadian Transplant Games, her family has lost a friend to liver failure. Amanda LaPierre was a founder of the Live Then Give Foundation, dedicated to improving organ donation rates and raising awareness. LaPierre had one transplant when she was younger, and had to wait too long for a second one.
“If you end up waiting too long, you’re too sick to recover,” Natalie notes.
Most of the medals at the Transplant Games were handed out by a donor family, which hit home for Nickie Williams.
“It was very poignant to know somebody else has walked the path you so feared to walk,” she says. “You think, ‘my goodness; you are living the life I didn’t want to live.'”
This is just the start of Natalie’s athletic career. She plans to ride in Ryder Hesjedal’s Tour de Victoria on Aug. 18, although she won’t be racing. Having already conquered cycling and swimming, Natalie is two-thirds of the way to a triathlon, and completing one of those is now a goal as well. And the 22nd World Transplant Games are in England in 2019, and she’s aiming to be there.
“I suppose it’s very competitive, but I wouldn’t go if I didn’t feel I could compete,” she says. “It’s very expensive to go, but I want to do that to honour my donor.”
Natalie doesn’t know much about her donor, but she pays constant tribute to him.
“These medals are more his than they are mine,” she says. “Even when I was crossing the finish line, he was in my mind; he was with me.”
That doesn’t take away from Natalie’s own accomplishment.
“I was proud,” she admits. “I messaged my doctor and he was thrilled. To have aimed for that five days post-transplant and actually done it is something I’m proud of.”
Just as her donor does and always will inspire her, Natalie hopes to inspire others, especially to become donors as well.
“It changed me for the better, even though I do struggle with the guilt,” she says. “I hope people look at transplant recipients and see how capable and inspiring they are, and think to sign up.”
For more information about organ transplants, and to register your donation, visit www.transplant.bc.ca